Atoning for Iniquity

Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness” (v. 24).

- Daniel 9:24–27

Once sin has been conquered, there is no need for atonement, so including the Day of Atonement on Israel’s yearly calendar indicates there was no way the rituals of that day, repeated each year, could put an end to sin (Lev. 16; 23:26–32). Something more would have to be done to achieve final atonement and the age of righteousness.

The prophet Daniel defines that something in today’s passage. Daniel is living in exile in Babylon, and while reading the book of Jeremiah he discovers that the seventy- year period of exile is about to end and that the Israelites will soon be restored to their land (Dan. 9:1–2; see Jer. 25:1–14). Knowing the law of Moses, Daniel also understands that the return of Israel to their land and their victory over the kingdoms of this world is dependent on their repentance for the sins that brought them into exile in the first place (Lev. 26:14–46). Yet Israel has not repented. So Daniel prays, asking the righteous Lord to restore the people in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophecy without overlooking their sin (Dan. 9:3–19).

God sends the angel Gabriel to answer His servant (vv. 20–23) and explain to Daniel that he has not seen the whole picture. Due to the people’s failure to repent, which the Lord knew would happen from the very beginning, the exile is going to be extended and the restoration is not going to be achieved until seventy weeks have passed, a shorthand reference to 490 years. It is difficult to know how literally to take this time reference, as seven is the number of completeness in Scripture (see Matt. 18:21–35) and God could be saying simply that He will solve the problem of sin in the fullness of time. Still, it is interesting to note that the 69 weeks or 483 years mentioned in Daniel 9:24–26 between the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and the cutting off of the anointed one correspond roughly to the period of time between the Jews’ return to Jerusalem under the Persian king Cyrus (Ezra 1:1–4) and the death of Jesus.

According to the revelation, sometime between 483 and 490 years after the Jews go back to Canaan, the death of an anointed one will establish a strong covenant that will end sacrifices, put an end to sin, and bring in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24–27). Clearly, this refers to a final atonement offered by the Messiah, whose death renders all sacrifices, including those offered on the Day of Atonement, obsolete.

Coram Deo

Discussions of Daniel 9 often focus on calculating years, the delay of the seventieth week, and so on. All should agree, however, that the number 490 is at least partly symbolic of God’s determination in the fullness of time to offer a final atonement that culminates in eternal righteousness. Christ has offered this final atonement, gives us a taste of that age of righteousness by His Spirit, and will come again to make us unable to sin anymore.

Passages for Further Study

1 Chronicles 6:49
Pss. 65:1–3; 79:8–9
Proverbs 16:6
Hebrews 10:1–18

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